Photography: Craig Mackay

The Truth Behind Sponsored Content

Jess Ann Kirby enjoys Spring in an embroidered blouse and jeans with a bouquet of seasonal flowers

I was on a work trip recently and was asked the question “How do your readers feel about sponsored content?” The question came up because of the backlash some influencers were getting about ads/paid collaborations. Last year I addressed some of what goes into making a living as a blogger but I didn’t really get into how sponsored content works. My answer to the question of how my readers feel about sponsored content (and essentially if I get negative feedback when I post content that is sponsored) was that a) I think they understand it’s part of the business and b) that I don’t typically get negative feedback. I realized as I was answering the question that I never really took the time to explain to all of you how it works. I also think I took for granted that I rarely receive negative feedback on my sponsored content. I’d like to think it’s because I’m very particular about the collaborations I accept and/or pursue, and I’m always transparent with you guys about paid content. That said, I want to shed some light on how and why I partner with brands, and hopefully take some of the mystery out of it. I think the biggest misconception is that everything I do/post is paid for or free. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I can understand that thought process from the outside looking in, because influencers and bloggers often don’t do a good job of distinguishing what’s paid for and what’s not (myself included). So let’s change that.

Jess Ann Kirby discussed sponsored content and her affiliates in a behind the scenes blog post
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What Does Sponsored Mean?

There’s a lot of different ways a blogger/influencer can be paid. It ranges from a sponsored blog post or Instagram to being a brand ambassador or attending an event. There’s also non-monetary things like gifting (where a brand sends you something but isn’t paying you to post about it). This can be anything from beauty products to clothes to hotel rooms to plane tickets. This is where it starts to get murky. Is it considered sponsored if a brand sends you something, even unsolicited (meaning they have your address and send you their products without you even agreeing to it or asking for them)? The answer has to be yes. The reality is, if you’re getting something for free, even if the brand doesn’t ask you to post about, you as the blogger/influencer have already been influenced by the brand because you didn’t pay for the product. That said, most bloggers I know (myself included) are very particular and transparent about the products we accept and share with our readers and followers. There’s a lot of products and things I don’t share either because I’m not a fan of the product or the brand.

What about getting a free hotel room or plane tickets from an airline? A lot of times, this will be offered up in exchange for coverage (blog post, social media content, etc.). This can also be paid content (though not in my experience, haha). Here’s the thing, a lot of times, travel is unpaid. I get asked a lot about our travel and if we’re getting paid to do it. The answer is more often than not, no. If we have a brand collaboration in a specific location, then yes, we are getting paid to be there, but most of the time, we are paying to travel.

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Why Do You Accept Paid Collaborations?

The simple answer, I need to make money because this is my job. All of that is true, but also because the same way an artist is paid for their paintings, a photographer is paid for their photos, a model is paid for being on set, a writer is paid for their article, a blogger/influencer is paid for their content, as they should be. I won’t get into what goes into content creation, but if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend this post I wrote about the truth behind doing this full time.

The reality, it wasn’t until maybe a year and a half ago that we were comfortably able to live off of the income from blogging. When I started I made no money. In the beginning it was really hard to say no to sponsored content. Not only because we had no money but because it’s so exciting to have a brand want to pay you for your work. But you have to look at the big picture in this business, and sometimes that’s a hard pill to swallow. In the first quarter of this year we turned down over $25k in sponsored content because the brands were not the right fit (this was a few different collaborations some of which were ambassadorships spread out over several months). That’s never easy. We have a mortgage, things in our house to fix, car payments, student loans, animals, health insurance, you get the drift, we have stuff to pay for like everyone else! But here’s the thing, YOU are the reason I am here, writing this post. Brands want to work me with me because my readers and followers trust me. I had to earn that trust. Which leads me to my next point, how I decide on brand collaborations.

Jess Ann Kirby bundles up in Sperry Duck boots and an LL Bean Fisherman sweater in Newport, Rhode Island
Jess Ann Kirby wears the Thirdlove lace balconette bra and ripped jeans at home
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Brand Collaborations: How I Decide

I’ll be honest, now in year four of blogging, I feel like I finally found my voice. It was always there, but I wasn’t always brave enough to share it. It’s one thing to put yourself on the internet and social media as a blogger/influencer, it’s another to ACTUALLY put yourself out there. In the beginning, I tried to hide “me.” I’ve always been a private person and a bit of an introvert so sharing more about myself was terrifying. Now here I am talking to you guys about menstrual cups and finances, haha, how far we’ve come.

Everyone’s different and I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong way to do this, but I’ve found just being myself, unapologetically, has been so rewarding. It has allowed me to connect with all of you on such a deeper level and I’m so thankful for that. I’m saying all of this because it has made a huge impact on how I make decisions about brand collaboration. There’s a few key things I ask myself when presented with an opportunity:

  1. Do I like this brand? Sometimes this is an easy and hard no. Other times I don’t know anything and have to do my research about the brand/product. And sometimes it’s a brand I already know and love (that’s the best when that happens).
  2. Would I use the product? Sometimes the answer is an immediate no. Sometimes I don’t know so I will ask to use and test the product for a period of time before I agree to anything. And sometimes it’s something I already use and love, those are the best case scenarios.
  3. What are the brand’s values and do they align with mine? This is where it can get tricky. There are some brands (products, etc.) that I am not willing to post about under any circumstances. Ultimately the decision comes down to feeling good about the content I’m creating. I am not going to accept money to write about something or create content for something that I’m second guessing. If I’m being honest, in the beginning there were a few times I accepted sponsored content I regret. It was part of the learning process. I make mistakes. I’m not saying every brand I work with has to be perfectly aligned with my personal believe system and values, but if they’re in direct conflict with them or I don’t feel great about the brand/product, it’s not going to be a good fit.
  4. Will my readers and followers like this? Yes, I think of you guys when I accept sponsored content. Sorry you’re not the only factor, haha, sometimes I have no idea if you’ll like something or not, but ultimately I want to feel good about what I am recommending. I can’t make everyone happy and there’s always things some people aren’t going to like, that’s ok, but anything I post needs to be something I will a) spend my own money on b) actually use and c) recommend to people.
  5. What is the budget and the ask?  I’m including this point because it’s not always about money, but it’s definitely a factor. Sometimes I’ll do things for free, sometimes even a massive budget with more money than I’ve ever been paid won’t convince me to accept a collaboration. Obviously I have to make a living but I also need to feel proud of what I’m creating. What the brand is asking for also has to be realistic for the budget they are providing. Good content creation is very time consuming. I also need to have creative freedom. If a brand is too specific or narrow in their messaging I won’t accept the collaboration. The content has to be in my voice and from my perspective.
Honestly, there’s a lot more I could say on this topic but I know people don’t like to read anymore, haha. Maybe it’s a good topic for a podcast? I’d be happy to share more, answer questions, get input from other influencers, bloggers and brands. Let me know what you guys think in the comments. I am all ears. And obviously, I sound like a broken record but thank you for supporting me and helping foster this community we’ve created together.

20 Comments

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  1. This is great info Jess – thank you! As someone who just launched a blog, it’s eye opening realizing just how much work and how big of a learning curve there is to ALL of this! I would love your insights on how you determine pricing for your sponsored content – maybe in a future post or podcast? I’m not even close to a monetizing point but hope to be down the road. Thanks! 🙂

  2. I love this post. I think all too often the reader does not know which posts are sponsored because the writer is not upfront, although I think less now than in the past with the new regulations. At the end of the day I personally do not understand how a reader can get mad if you write a sponsored post, its your blog, your space and your job.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Robin says:

    Really appreciated this post, Jess! Thanks for always being so transparent. It’s something I really admire and love about following your blog.

  4. Amy says:

    This is so interesting and I really appreciate you being so transparent about it! Is sponsorship changing – meaning is it being regulated? I’ve noticed recently that bloggers who never disclosed sponsors before are now (shortly after I read a few news articles calling out the industry). Also, when did you first start being paid? I have been blogging inconsistently for years but finally found my voice/niche this year and have been very consistently since. I certainly don’t expect to make lots of money doing this (I truly just enjoy writing), but it would be nice to cover some of my childcare costs 🙂

  5. Shannon says:

    Love this post, Jess! Always honest and transparent- two of the many reasons I enjoy following along! Xo

  6. Michelle says:

    Jess, you are one of very few (ok, two!) bloggers I trust in terms of sponsored content. Your transparency, the fact that what you’re selling seems to be things that you would actually use, and your sincerity shine through. I have noticed with so many bloggers that there is a point at which their blog seems to “jump the shark.“ You can just tell that whatever it is they’re selling when this happens is either something so ridiculous they would never use or kind of a bottom of the barrel type thing. And for me, that’s when I unfollow. I agree and understand that everyone has to make a living but if that living is based on me purchasing things that are recommended then I have to feel that it’s genuine. It is definitely for you but for so many, it is painfully obvious it all comes down to the almighty dollar. You keep doing you!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    This was fantastic! I’m a (very) new reader to your blog and enjoying every bit of it! Thank you for the honesty in everything you write xx

  8. Ashley says:

    Loved reading this post! Very insightful. Leaving this comment here just to say that I’m VERY much looking forward to becoming an avid listener of your podcast. Thanks for all that you do!

    • Jessica says:

      Aw thank you so much Ashley! I am super nervous but also really excited to launch at the end of this month. Really appreciate your support.

  9. Thank you so much for this information! It’s hard to clearly understand what is paid/sponsored/collaborated etc as a new blogger. If a company sends me product in exchange to use a picture – if I post about the picture do I need to say sponsored or ad if I use the product they sent me? Or if I collab and my readers get a discount code do I still have to say sponsored or ad? I want to be clear with my readers and transparent as well, I just don’t feel like I’m aware of all the guidelines. Thanks!

  10. Hi Jess Ann!
    Loved this post, especially as someone who just launched a website and has a steady-growing following. I am constantly wondering if I should be the one to reach out to the brands to get my name out there (and only to brands that I like/feel align with my brand) but also, I want to have them pitch to me as well. Making money can be the tough part without giving away some of your own brand. I love how you choose. All of your helpful blogger tips posts have answered so many questions for me, so I really appreciate you taking the time. Would love to listen to a podcast!

    Xx,
    Betty Ann

  11. Grace Atwood says:

    Love this – such a thoughtful look at the behind the scenes and why we make the decisions we make!

  12. julie says:

    You’re such a delight in today’s blogging world! As always, thank you for your transparency and content.

  13. Lisa says:

    Such a good post! I hung on to every word, you totally could have written more! The business of blogging is so fascinating, and sharing the work that goes behind your work always encourages me to support even more! Love the transparency and your writing style is effective and interesting.

    Lisa
    http://www.theeverydayelevated.com

  14. Becky says:

    Jess, I’ve followed for a long time, and really applaud your growth. When you talk about finding your voice, its apparent and authentic. Really appreciate that!

  15. Wendy says:

    It seems like many bloggers don’t consider something sponsored if they received for free, even if it was unsolicited, so it’s good to see that you do feel like it’s murky but that it is sponsored.

  16. taylor says:

    God, I love your honesty so much. Most bloggers are so superficial about this. You’re so real and it is actually a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the job. Thank you for sharing and discussing the challenges that come with the job. Although…I still wish I could be a full time blogger!!! haha 🙂 I think full time bloggers today have it hard because you have to hit the perfect balance of social media and blogging. Getting people to your page, while maintaining content on the feed, you know? Go you! Love your blog and have been listing your name on my own “must reads” for months now.

    taylor from ataylorstudio.com/journal